Family film definition changing
PG ratings appear more often as audiences pack movie theaters
Beacon Journal movie critic
A teen-age amateur detective named Shaggy engages in a gaseous battle with his best bud and canine, a dog named Scooby-Doo, in the movie of the same name.
A feline named Snowbell, stuck in a paint can, hangs perilously from a flagpole and remarks that it has officially become a litter box in Stuart Little 2.
You don't think he meant that he was reading a newspaper, do you?
Meet the new generation of family films. They are filled with just enough material to get a PG rating yet still pass muster with audiences.
Their prevalence in today's box office gives credence to the theory that the G rating -- which judges a movie to be for general audiences -- isn't a good lure for the box office.
Consider that studios released just four films (The Rookie, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Return to Neverland and the reissue of Beauty & the Beast) with a G rating so far this year. And with the exception of Spirit, none of those movies opened during the lucrative summer months.
This summer's ``family'' movies have included Spider-Man (PG-13), Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (PG), Hey Arnold! The Movie (PG), Scooby-Doo (PG), Like Mike (PG) and The Powerpuff Girls (PG).
Even the animated release from the traditionally staid Walt Disney Studios this summer, Lilo & Stitch, grabbed a PG -- a trend that started for some of Disney's releases several summers ago with Dinosaur. There isn't a lot of gold to be found with a G rating.
Last year only 4 percent of all movies shown in America carried the G. Their box office haul that year was $418 million, or 5.36 percent of all revenue.
This year G movies have taken in $220.3 million, just 3 percent of the take for the year to date.
``The G rating certainly positions a film as family fare. The concern, though, is with the movie-going habits of the public,'' said Kevin Hagopian, a communications professor at Penn State University. ``While the G rating may be useful as a guide for parents in selecting videos later on, the notion of the family going to the movies together isn't as significant a factor in theatrical box office as it is in the video market.''
It would seem those changes in viewing habits have led to a change in what many people consider to be a family film.
``We're finding that the PG rating is really coming into vogue,'' said Paul Dergarabedian, of box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. ``It used to be that a PG-rated film would meet with some resistance from parents. Any indication that something was edgier than G-rated and parents would wince.''
But that changed with the coming of DreamWorks and its release of Antz in 1998. So far this year, PG-rated films have taken in $1.076 billion at the box office, including Star Wars ($293 million), Scooby-Doo ($145 million) and Lilo & Stitch ($120 million). Those numbers suggest a shift in the definition in what a family movie is.
``The family film encompasses more, if not overt sexuality, then (more) reference to sexuality than it used to,'' Hagopian said. ``I think it allows for more violence than it used to. Even the Disney animated films still have a good deal of implied violence in their plot line.''
Dergarabedian agreed and suggested that the ratings for films reflect the changes in society.
That's what concerns Daphne White and her organization, the Lion & Lamb Project. White, executive director of the group that campaigns against marketing violence to children, calls the trend toward stronger content ``troubling.''
``I think what the industry is doing is pushing more violence into younger ages and calling it family-friendly,'' she said.
``The truth is, as kids get older, they don't want to see G-rated films. Kids are always wanting to push the envelope and see the next rating above what they should see. Parents are looking for movies that are appropriate.''
But she also acknowledged that parents bear some of the responsibility for seeing that their children view material suitable for their age. White has seen her share of adults walk into violent R-rated movies with children who are obviously not old enough to be watching the films.
``I would say that parents who bring 5- and 6-year-olds to R-rated movies are not thinking of the welfare of their children,'' she said. ``I do think that parents need to exercise their responsibility -- I think there are millions of those parents and they're finding Hollywood is making it almost impossible for them because there are so few movies that don't involve violence and values that parents don't agree with.''
Part of the problem is the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system, she said, calling it ``useless'' for most parents.
However, the association cites its own data, showing that 80 percent of parents consider its system useful.
Hagopian agreed with White.
``It's outdated because the movie-going habits of the nation have changed,'' he said. ``It's not that surprising that the system might have been outrun by demographic reality. After all, it's largely been unchanged in philosophy and spirit since 1968.''
Indeed, the association has altered the system only twice since then. The PG-13 rating was added in 1984 in response to violence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the NC-17 came along in 1990 in response to the sexually explicit Henry and June.
Hagopian suggests that it's time for a new system, but he knows that idea will be met with disdain from the movie industry.
``I don't think the answer is to reorder the ratings, as has been done in the past,'' he said. ``The concern (of the industry) isn't to come up with a system that's rigorous and truly descriptive of movie content. The idea is to come up with a system that makes the various pressure constituencies happy.''
Dergarabedian implies a change in the system isn't necessary; the studios just need to pay closer attention to their audience. Given that last year's seven G-rated films averaged almost $60 million in revenue, he could have a point.
``G-rated films like The Princess Diaries and The Rookie should tell studios there is a place for wholesome entertainment for the whole family that isn't just relegated to animated ranks and if done properly, the stigma (of the G rating) can be eliminated.''
George M. Thomas is the movie critic for the Akron Beacon Journal. He can be reached at 330-996-3579 or at .